“IT LOOKS like you’re writing a column for The Champion. Can I help?”
Anyone even vaguely familiar with Clippy, the relentlessly cheery – and endlessly irritating – virtual assistant for Microsoft Word will know how I feel this week. Every time you tried even the simplest task, like opening your latest missive with “Dear”, would instantly be met with a bombardment of questions about exactly how you’d like to write a letter.
Thankfully Clippy was quickly marched into Bill Gates’ office and promptly issued with his P45 many years ago, but I’m beginning to wonder whether he’s since managed to get another job – this time, residing in the infotainment system of the latest Mercedes A-Class. I’ve just spent several hundred miles in the company of a mid-range A180d, but it felt more like a shift rather than a drive. When all of its considerable amount of in-car tech is up and running it might as well be a work station on wheels – perhaps with a photocopier and a water cooler in the corner – than a car.
Its pièce de résistance is a double-screen, interactive display that starts behind the steering wheel and runs right across to the centre of the dashboard and controls every function imaginable in the A-Class, from the cruise control to how much bass you’d like on the tunes being played through its Bluetooth connection. It is very cleverly engineered and I’m sure that if I spent about a month going through every sub-menu fiddling with the settings it would be fine-tuned to match every minute facet of my personality, but because I hadn’t – and because it was doing its best to try and guess them – it did make me wonder why Mercedes had given the important gig of running the A-Class to poor old Clippy.
Leaving a car park, for instance, does not require a feed from four car-mounted cameras to be instantly fired up – not when I have mirrors, windows and a moveable neck that can already do all of that. Nor do I want, when I’m squeezing through a tight gap, a collision warning system to chime in at the precise moment that I’m concentrating. It’s also not terribly intuitive to use – it’s controlled via the steering wheel, a touch screen and a sensor pad on the centre console, the latter of which is mounted right next to the cupholders. Which means you end up accidentally exiting the satnav when you grab your cup of coffee. It even has a wrist support to stop you getting repetitive strain injury. I’m used to these doing an eight-hour stint in an office, but in a car?
All of which meant I ended up doing what most Microsoft Word users did about 20 years ago – switching off Clippy altogether – and driving around with as much of the in-car tech as possible shut down. As soon as I did that I actually enjoyed the A-Class for what it really is – it’s beautifully built, decent to drive, a lot nicer to look at than the previous model and, in A180d form at least, equipped with a turbodiesel that delivers plenty of mid-range thump on motorways and dual carriageways.
I reckon it’s the best A-Class so far, once you let the engineering – rather than the tech – do the talking. Brilliant, I’ve made it to the end of this week’s column without Clippy chiming in!
“It looks like you’re signing off for another week. Can I hel…”